In Davos, titans of business, government and society confront a near tidal wave of anxiety-provoking events and trends which seem only to highlight the failure of sufficient vision, creativity and cooperation to prevent catastrophes. And while the U.S. economy is resurgent, the state of the global union is volatile and fragile, not strong. Among the negative “disrupters” on tap for Davos are:

Geopolitical instability — Major transitions and challenges are occurring in every region of the world. How will Greek elections affect Europe’s unity?  What does Swiss Central Bank head Thomas Jordan have to say or himself?  Will ECB Mario Draghi’s promise yesterday to buy a trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) of government bonds enable the EU finally to mend deep cracks in its economic architecture and jumpstart growth? How will China’s slowdown affect Beijing’s effort to reconcile its political system with market disciplines as it seeks to address rising inequality and popular frustrations?  Meanwhile, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are in political upheaval and transition. The Islamic State adds to fears of “failed states,” like Yemen. People of the region urge their governments to keep order and deliver services, but seem torn between openness and stability. Energy markets (already rocked by U.S. shale oil) reflect the instability in their jaw-dropping volatility and in dynamics like those with Russia, the Ukraine and Europe. The recent attacks in Paris and cybersecurity threats will give global leaders even more to talk about.

ADVERTISEMENT
Oil and Geopolitics — The rapid 50 percent drop in oil prices represents a massive, short-term wealth transfer from oil producers (including Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria) to others that import oil and/or subsidize energy (e.g. Europe, Japan, the US, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia). US consumers and energy-intensive industries may gain $230 billion in just one year, but the economies of oil-export dependent Iran and Russia, with budgets already hard hit by economic sanctions, are in tatters.  Iran and Russia have just agreed on expanded military cooperation, as negotiations on a nuclear agreement with Iran continue and the US Congress prepares for a showdown on new Iran sanctions. Saudi insiders opine that the Kingdom can hold oil prices low for several years with careful budgeting; Saudi exports recently hit a 7-month high. Iran and other OPEC members are still working to gain OPEC agreement to cut production, but chances are clearly slim for now.

Inequality and Social Fragility — While global poverty has fallen dramatically, middle class wages are stagnating and inequality is rising in much of the world. This undermines hope, both within and between countries and regions, that market-based economies and democratic governance can deliver better lives for the majority. Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima (Davos 2015 co-chair) and Bill Gates will join Larry Summers, IMF’s LaGarde, Mohammed El Erian and unexpected others in arguing passionately for policies (e.g. higher wages, global tax reform, infrastructure investment, access to education and “inclusive growth”) to address inequality. China’s slowdown, Europe’s doldrums and Japan’s inability to re-capture its “Japan Inc.” vibrancy make this harder. Economic pain and social frustration only encourage interest groups and countries to protect their piece of the economic pie, rather than to grow it, e.g. via trade and investment efforts.

Climate change — While not a new topic, there is a sense that we really are running out of time and options. Last year was the world’s hottest, according to NASA.  A January Science report finds that all marine ecosystems have already been damaged by human activity (though less than ecosystems on land) and a “major extinction event” is quite possible. Apparently even Pope Francis is fed up and plans an environmental encyclical before November climate talks.

Pandemics — Ebola has slowed, but deadly “superbugs” resistant to our best medicines are still spreading.  A recent report chaired by former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill warns that failure to combat antimicrobial resistance will cut global GDP by up to $100 trillion, and add 10 million deaths, by 2050. WHO and experts stress that unless we accelerate development and proper use of new medicines and infection prevention measures, common diseases will become untreatable and standard medical procedures too dangerous to use. Awareness of the dangers of the overuse and wrong use of antibiotics is profoundly lacking in both developed and developing countries.  R&D costs are very high and incentives still too low to re-open the pipeline of new medicines.

Even Davos titans will be hard-pressed to explain to those who are frightened, frustrated and disaffected that rule of law and inclusive economic and social systems and governments can meet these challenges.  But along with justifiable hand-wringing, expect Davos to surface some very smart ideas for how to do that. Perhaps next year we can figure out how to “crowd-source” pragmatic new approaches and solutions.

Pence is senior international advisor at Covington & Burling LLP.